Deesha Dyer is the co-founder and executive director of beGirl.world Global Scholars, an organization that empowers teen girls through education and travel. BeGirl has partnered with Lonely Planet to raise awareness about their passport-equity project and to celebrate and continue its mission. In this first-person essay, Dyer shares how she made her travel dream of a trip to New Zealand a reality, confirming that manifesting your travel destiny sometimes really does work.
Science was always my favorite class, especially in middle school, as my inquisitive and creative mind started to mature enough to understand how the world and everything in it connected.
One day in 1990, we were learning about plants: how sun and water conspire to create everything we see around us. When my fabulous teacher Ms Moser instructed us to open our textbooks, I was immediately struck by a photo of a large, lush field with all types of colorful flowers. It curved up a hill and seemed to go on for miles.
Where was this place?
I glanced down to the corner to read the small italicized writing: New Zealand. I folded the corner of the page so I could look at again it from time to time.
A long-distance love affair
This started a love affair with this beautiful country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But I was just a kid from Philadelphia; New Zealand was so far away. Traveling to me was going to the Jersey Shore or to visit family in Queens, New York – certainly not boarding a plane or crossing an ocean to leave the country.
In seventh grade, I kept a spinning globe in my room – the cheap kind, with the plastic peel on sections that would slowly creep up after a few years, only to be held down by scotch tape (less expensive than buying a new one). I kept North America pointing toward me, for if I had to turn the globe left or right to see another country, that was a sign that I couldn’t afford to go there. New Zealand seemed like another planet away, one you would need a million dollars and a rocket ship to get to.
I had neither.
As I grew up, graduated from high school (in 1995) and learned more about travel, I realized that while I didn’t need either of those things to explore, I certainly had to find another path to see the world – because I still couldn’t afford it. I jokingly (and, um, seriously) prayed for a job that would pay me to travel. I spent the early 2000s watching Travel Channel host Samantha Brown, who seemed to have the best job in the world: eating, drinking and galavanting around the globe. Someone please pay me to do this! I thought.
This led me to short stints with American Airlines and the Omni Netherland Plaza hotels, where I flew and stayed in places for a huge discount. Yet I was never able to use the benefits for international travel.
Yes, we can (travel internationally)
In 2007, at age 29, after a slew of professional stops (including as a hip-hop journalist, peer counselor, secretary and retail worker), I decided to return to school part-time, at the Community College of Philadelphia. At this point, I had left the airline and hotel worlds, and had on my time off visited international destinations on a budget, including Mexico, Bermuda, France and England. The realm of what was possible and how far I could go began to grow. Then, in 2009, I landed an opportunity that finally did pay me to travel: I went to intern at the White House for the president and first lady of the United States, Barack and Michelle Obama.
I was placed in the Department of Scheduling and Advance, which was charged with creating and managing the president’s daily schedule and arranging travel and event logistics for the first couple. This involved a team traveling ahead of the event (hence, “advancing”). If the event was in the US, we would travel seven days ahead; for international trips (referred to as OCONUS – outside the continental United States), we would leave two weeks before the event.
I traveled all over the world with the White House, and absolutely loved it. In 2011, the president was planning an official trip to Australia, and I joined as part of the advance team working and playing in cities like Canberra and Sydney. Although this was the closest yet I would get to New Zealand, I couldn’t make it there. On the way home, I craned my neck by the window to catch any glimpse of it I could from above. Silly perhaps – but hopeful.
Fast forward 11 years, to 2022, when I was planning my wedding. I told my now-husband Wes that the only place on Earth I wanted to go was New Zealand. I didn’t care how much it cost; we were going. I had never forgotten the feeling I had at age 10 when I first turned to that page in science class.
We set a budget, put our wedding on a credit card to get the points (yes, we paid it right off) and started to strategize our trip. Because Obama, my former boss, had a speaking engagement in Australia a few months after our wedding, I had taken the chance to “advance” the trip by the former president to get to that part of the world. Which meant we would only need to pay for Wes’ flights and lodging, among other things.
So, in March 2023, I finally touched down on New Zealand soil.
The trip got off to a rocky start, when Wes’ long-anticipated scuba excursion got canceled because of bad visibility. (This is pretty common; if scuba diving is on your New Zealand agenda, you should have a back-up plan.) And given the late hour we arrived, it was hard to find something to eat on the outskirts of Auckland. Thankfully, we came across Sakebar Nippon Epsom, which hit the spot with fresh sushi and beer. The next morning, we cruised to Taupō. On the drive, we saw endless fields of green and lush trees and flowers in bloom. It was an emotional and reflective moment.
I had made it.
Appetite for adventure
En route to Taupō, we stopped for a delicious meal at a roadside diner, Kaiaua Fisheries, before checking out the pristine sands of Waihi Beach. The fall season meant it was less crowded and a little chilly, yet still enjoyable for swimming, walking, fishing, lounging and people-watching.
Back on the road, we observed more farms – and took in the unique scent of sulfur, signaling our entrance into the land of hot springs that were sacred to the Māori and Indigenous people that first occupied the land. (A tip for anyone setting out on a New Zealand road trip: fill up on gas whenever and wherever you can; stations were few and far between, with many closed.)
Before I go further, it is important to note that, like many places in the world, New Zealand was colonized in a destructive fashion. While we could feel, see and hear the presence of the Māori people all around the island through everyday people, the music, the names of streets and landmarks, the effects of land seizures as well as suppressed language, tradition and culture were equally prevalent.
We broke up the drive from Auckland with a visit to a community flea market in the small town of Pōkeno, where we ate delicious home-baked goods. We dipped into Countdown, a chain grocery store, to get some provisions for the week before arriving at the famous Whakarewarewa Forest. We took a walking-bridge tour between each tree (at night – a bit scary, but beautifully lit), and learned that the redwoods (the only ones to be found outside of North America) were imported and planted in the early 1900s. Sure, it was a little touristy – but also the perfect spot for outdoor activities like running and biking.
Paradise found in and around Taupō
We checked into The Village Resort, surrounded by downtown restaurants and walking paths overlooking Lake Taupo. The next five days of our trip were simply magical. We plunged into Hell’s Gate, an active geothermal spa in the Bay of Plenty between Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti. (Another tip: rent a bathing suit and wear clothes that you don’t mind throwing away later: ours smelled of sulfur for weeks, and we ultimately got rid of them). The mud was surprisingly relaxing, and my skin felt great afterward.
We visited several waterfalls, including Okere, Owharoa, Ketetahi and Tawhai (aka Gollum’s Pool) in Tongariro National Park. The park also has endless trails for both beginners (like me!) and experienced hikers. My husband, a lawn bowling enthusiast, joined a game at the small Rotorua East Lawn Bowling Club. Back in Taupō, he relaxed at the Otumuheke Stream while I enjoyed a therapeutic massage at Thai Healing Concepts.
We were most excited about our final day in New Zealand, when we would take a ferry to Waiheke Island. This was the one place that everyone we spoke with consistently recommended. From the photos, it looked like an absolute dream. I got all dressed up and was ready for the fabulous pictures we were going to take on this island…but nature had other plans.
A torrential six-hour downpour completely ruined our itinerary.
We soldiered on in the hope that the rain would eventually stop or lighten up. It did not. In between scrambling to put on our rain gear, running through puddles and the 45-minute ferry ride with a bunch of other drenched people, we tried to make the most of it.
We enjoyed a meal at Fenice, a yummy Italian restaurant, capped off with drinks and dessert at the stunning (if damp) Mudbrick Vineyard. Later, we walked down the town street for as long as our squishy shoes would allow. We boarded the ferry back and laughed. What a way to end a trip!
Since we had booked the trip on separate tickets, Wes and I had to fly home separately. This allowed me an extra day by myself to reflect on this journey, which had begun in seventh grade. There wasn’t enough time to explore everything: and this just means I have to go back. In New Zealand, the beauty of the land goes on and on. It’s a place where the sky kisses the mountains and marries the sea.
Sights that are surely the manifestation of a lifetime.